Penn State football coach Joe Paterno joked after Saturday’s game he might be writing columns next year if he keeps coaching like that.
In the other locker room, Gophers coach Glen Mason was calling the game the best he had seen his team play this season.
What in the name of that annoying, heart attack-inducing cannon is going on? Didn’t Penn State win the game?
Of course it did. But the Gophers’ 27-17 loss to the 13th-ranked Lions was the second straight year the matchup has produced a closer-than-expected game.
Still, Minnesota came up short. The loss is the Gophers’ (3-2 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten) second straight, and things won’t get much easier for Minnesota when they travel to Columbus, Ohio on Saturday to play the top-ranked Buckeyes.
Penn State (4-1, 1-1) seemed in control for most of the game, but continued to make costly mistakes — including three fumbled snaps that helped the Gophers hang around.
After Minnesota narrowed the scoring gap to 27-17 on Luke Leverson’s second touchdown catch of the game, cornerback Craig Scruggs recovered an on-side kick at the Minnesota 43-yard line, giving the handful of remaining fans a reason for optimism.
But a fumbled option pitch from backup quarterback Billy Cockerham to running back Thomas Hamner was tipped near the line of scrimmage by Penn State cornerback David Macklin, who then recovered the ball at the Lions 37-yard line and sealed the victory.
“If that pitch gets to the tailback he might have gone, because the defensive guy really overplayed the pitch,” Mason said. “But what could have been a big play ended up being a big play the other way.”
Penn State sacked quarterback Andy Persby seven times, including four by linebacker Brandon Short, and held the Gophers offense to 224 total yards.
Persby, who was making his first collegiate start, struggled early on but hung in until the fourth quarter, when he was replaced by Cockerham.
Mason said he was happy with Persby’s play, but he refused to say whether the North St. Paul native will start against Ohio State on Saturday.
“It’s either Persby or Cockerham, or Cockerham or Persby,” Mason said. “Maybe both. I like to keep pressure on those guys. The reason I went with Persby was because I got a feeling that we’d do better with him against Penn State, but credit Cockerham. He wasn’t happy with the switch, but when he got a chance to go, he went in and performed pretty darn well.”
The Lions offense compiled 425 yards of total offense, including a career-high 246 yards passing by quarterback Kevin Thompson, as the Minnesota pass defense continued to give up huge chunks of yards through the air.
“I thought Kevin was playing good and he threw the ball well,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. “That was without a question the most confident and poised he has been.”
Yet despite those dominating numbers, Minnesota still found itself with a chance to win. The outcome hinged on three plays.
The last straw was the Cockerham fumble, but the first two came on a drive in the middle of the third quarter after the Gophers had closed the gap to 16-10 thanks on an Andy Persby-to-Luke Leverson touchdown.
With the crowd of 40,546 fans providing some helpful noise after Gophers cornerback Willie Middlebrooks stuffed Penn State running back Aaron Harris for a nine-yard loss, the Lions were facing a 2nd-and-22 from their own 11.
But on the following play, Gophers linebacker Parc Williams was called for a pass interference penalty on a questionable call.
“From my vantage point, which isn’t very good, I thought he interfered with him,” Mason said. “But at the same time, without questioning the official’s call, the pass would have been incomplete anyway.”
Williams had 15 tackles and recovered two fumbles. He said his view on the play wasn’t very good, either.
“My right arm got across when I was reaching over and I think I got there early,” Williams said. “I think it was a good call, but whether or not it was catchable I really couldn’t see.”
The penalty gave Penn State a first down, and the Lions drove to their own 49-yard line before a holding penalty left them with a 2nd-and-24. That’s when the second big play occurred, as Thompson and receiver Corey Jones connected on a 65-yard touchdown pass.
Minnesota strong safety Tyrone Carter, who had 19 tackles, said the secondary made a coverage mistake on the play.
“We were in zone play on that touchdown pass,” Carter said. “It was a misunderstanding with both me and the cornerback.”
The touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion pushed the Penn State lead to 24-10 and took the wind out of the Gophers’ sails.
“The bomb hurt our confidence and took the energy from the crowd,” Williams said.
Despite the loss, Mason said this is the happiest he has been with his squad since the first day of spring practice. But Mason refused to call the game a “moral victory.”
“You know the old saying, `You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,’ and I really believe we got better today. I think it was the best game we’ve played to date.”
GOPHERS SUMMARYPassing — Persby 13-34-2-113, 1 TD; Cockerham 2-2-21, 1 TD.
Receiving — Leverson 8-97, 2 TD; Henderson 4-27; Keller 1-11; Johnson 1-1; Hamner 1-minus 2.
Rushing — Hamner 11-41; Evans 3-27; Henderson 1-26; Cockerham 3-10; Bruce 1-3; Persby 10-minus 17.